Arc of Justice NPR coverage of Arc of Justice: A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age by Kevin Boyle. News, author interviews, critics' picks and more.
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Arc of Justice

A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age

by Kevin Boyle

Hardcover, 415 pages, Henry Holt & Co, List Price: $26 |


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Arc of Justice
A Saga of Race, Civil Rights, and Murder in the Jazz Age
Kevin Boyle

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Book Summary

Follows the sensational 1925 murder trial of African-American doctor Ossian Sweet, who was accused of murdering a white person during a mob attack on his home, in a tale that includes a history of the Sweet family and a portrait of his attorney, Clarence Darrow. 25,000 first printing.

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Awards and Recognition

National Book Award (2004)

Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Arc Of Justice


The streets of Detroit shimmered with heat. Most years, autumnarrived the first week of September. Not in 1925. Two days pastLabor Day and the sun blazed like July. Heat curled up from the asphalt,wrapped around telephone poles and streetlight stanchions, drifted pastthe unmarked doors of darkened speakeasies, seeped through windowsthrown open to catch a breeze, and settled into the city's flats and houseswhere it lay, thick and oppressive, as afternoon edged into evening.

Detroit had been an attractive place in the nineteenth century, amedium-size midwestern city made graceful by its founders' French design.Five broad boulevards radiated outward like the spokes of awheel-one each running east, northeast, north, northwest, and west-fromthe compact downtown. Detroit's grand promenades, these boulevardswere lined with the mansions of the well-to-do, mammoth stonechurches, imposing businesses, and exclusive clubs. Between the boulevardslay Detroit's neighborhoods, row after row of modest single-familyhomes interspersed with empty lots, waiting for the development thatboosters continually claimed was coming but never seemed to arrive.

The auto boom changed everything. Plenty of cities had automakersin the early days, but Detroit had the young industry's geniuses,practical men seduced by the beauty of well-ordered mechanical systemsand fascinated by the challenge of efficiency. German and Frenchmanufacturers had invented automobiles in the 1870s. It was Detroit'sbrilliance to reinvent them. In the early days of the twentieth century,the city's aspiring automakers had disassembled the European-madehorseless carriages, studying every part, tinkering with the designs,searching for ways to make them work more smoothly and to manufacturethem more cheaply. By 1914, when Henry Ford unveiled his restructuredHighland Park plant north of downtown, the process wascomplete. Ford had created a factory as complex as the automobile itself,floor after floor full of machines intricately designed and artfullyarranged to make and assemble auto parts faster than anyone thoughtpossible. Three hundred thousand Model T's rolled out of the factorythat year, inexpensive, elegantly simple, utterly dependable cars for ordinaryfolk like Ford himself.

Ford's triumph triggered the industrial version of a gold rush.Other manufacturers grabbed great parcels of land for factories. TheDodge Brothers, John and Horace, started work on a complex largeenough to rival Ford's on the northeast side, Walter Chrysler built asprawling plant on the far reaches of the east side, near the DetroitRiver; Walter O. Briggs scattered a series of factories across the city.Aspiringentrepreneurs filled the side streets with tiny machine shopsand parts plants that they hoped would earn them a cut of seeminglyunending profits. The frenzy transformed Detroit itself into a greatmachine. By 1925, its grand boulevards were shadowed by stark factorywalls and canopied by tangles of telephone lines and streetcar cables.Once fine buildings were now enveloped in a perpetual haze fromdozens of coal-fired furnaces.

More than a decade had passed since Henry Ford, desperate to keephis workers on the line, doubled their wages to an unprecedented fivedollars a day. Word of Detroit's high-paying jobs had shot through Pennsylvaniamining camps, British shipyards, Mississippi farmhouses, andpeasant villages from Sonora to Abruzzi. Tens of thousands of workingpeople poured into the city, lining up at the factory gates, looking fortheir share of the machinists' dream. Eleven years on, they were stillcoming. In 1900, when Ford was first organizing his company, Detroithad 285,000 people living within its city limits. By 1925, it had 1.25 million.Only New York, Chicago, and Philadelphia were bigger, and Detroitwas rapidly closing the gap. "Detroit is Eldorado," wrote an awed magazinereporter. "It is staccato American. It is shockingly dynamic."

And it was completely overwhelming. While the auto magnates retreatedto the serenity of their sparkling new suburban estates, workingpeople struggled to hold on to a sliver of space somewhere in Detroit'svast grid of smoke gray side streets. In the center city, where Negroesand the poorest immigrants lived, two, three, or more families sharedtiny workmen's cottages built generations before. Single men jammedinto desperately overcrowded rooming houses, sleeping in shifts so thatlandlords could double the fees they collected for the privilege of eighthours' rest on flea-infested mattresses. Beyond the inner ring, a mile orso from downtown, the nineteenth-century city gradually gave way to asprawl of new neighborhoods. First came vast tracts of flats and jerry-riggedhouses for those members of the working class lucky enough tofind five-dollar-a-day jobs. Immigrants clustered on the east side of thecity, the native-born on the west side, all of them paying premiumprices for homes slapped up amid factories, warehouses, and railroadyards or along barren streetscapes. Workers' neighborhoods blendedalmost imperceptibly into areas dominated by craftsmen and clerks,Detroit's solid middle strata, who struggled mightily to afford the tinytouches that set them apart from the masses: a bit of distance from thefactory gates, a patch of grass front and back. Finally, out near the suburbs'borders lay pockets of comfortable middle-class houses, miniatureversions of the mock Tudors and colonial revivals favored by theupper crust, so beyond the means of most Detroiters it wasn't evenworth the effort of dreaming about them.

Garland Avenue sat squarely in the middle range, four miles east ofdowntown, halfway between the squalor of the inner city and thesplendor of suburban Grosse Pointe. Despite its name, it wasn't an avenueat all. It was just a side street, two miles of pavement runningstraight north from Jefferson Avenue, Detroit's southeastern boulevard,to Gratiot Avenue, the northeastern boulevard.

In 1900, Garland was nothing more than a plan on a plat book, butdevelopers had raced to fill it in. To squeeze out every bit of space, theycut the street into long blocks, broken by cross streets that could serveas business strips. Then they sliced each block into twenty or thirty thinlots 35 feet wide and 125 feet deep. A few plots were sold to families whowanted to build their own homes, the way working people always usedto do. On the remaining lots, developers built utilitarian houses for themiddling sort: long, narrow wood-frame, two-family flats, one apartmentup, another down, each with its own entrance off a porch that ranthe length of the front. Behind each house was a small yard, barely bigenough for a garden, leading out to the alleyway; in front was a postage-stamplawn running from the porch to the spindly elms planted at curbside.Only a few feet of open space separated one building from another,a space so small that, from the right angle, the houses seemed to fadeone into another, much as one machine seemed to fade into anotheralong an assembly line.

The people who lived up and down the street didn't have the education,the credentials, or the polish of the lawyers, accountants, and collegeprofessors who lived in the city's outer reaches. But they had all theattributes necessary to keep themselves out of the inner city, and that'swhat mattered most. Of come, they were white, each and every one.The vast majority of them were American born, and the few foreignersliving on the street came from respectable stock; they were Germans,Englishmen, Irishmen, and Scotsmen, not the Poles or Russians orGreeks who filled so much of the east side. Some of them were nativeDetroiters, and virtually all the rest had come to the city from othernorthern states, so they knew how to make their way in the big city: theyunderstood how to work their way into the trades, how to use a membershipin the Masons or the Odd Fellows to pry open employment-officedoors, how to flash a bit of fast talk to sway a reluctant buyer.

Such advantages helped the people of Garland find solid jobs, a blessingin a city that burned through workingmen, then tossed them aside. Aminority of the men worked as salesmen, teachers, and shop clerks, thesort of jobs that didn't pay particularly well but kept the hands clean. Afew more were craftsmen, the elite of the working class, trained in metalwork or carpentry or machine repair and fiercely proud of the knowledgethey carried under their cloth caps. Many more had clawed theirway to the top rung of factory labor. They were foremen, inspectors,supervisors,men who spent their days in the noise and dirt of the shopfloor making sure that others did the backbreaking, mind-numbingwork required to keep shiny new cars flowing out of the factories.

Most of the women worked at home. They rose early to make husbandsand boarders breakfasts sufficient to steel them for a day ofwork, then bustled children off to school-the youngest to Julia WardHowe Elementary, a brooding two-story brick building at the intersectionof Garland and Charlevoix, three blocks north of Jefferson; theolder ones to Foch Middle School and Southeastern High. Morningsand afternoons were spent shopping and sweeping and washingclothes streaked with machine oil and alley dirt. Their evenings weredevoted to cooking and cleaning dishes while their husbands relaxedwith the newspaper or puttered out in the garage.

No matter how many advantages the families along Garland Avenueenjoyed, though, it was always a struggle to hold on. Housing prices hadspiraled upward so fearfully the only way a lot of folks could buy a flat ora house was to take on a crippling burden of debt. The massive weight ofdouble mortgages or usurious land contracts threatened to crack familybudgets. Men feared the unexpected assault on incomes that at theirbest barely covered monthly payments: the commission that failed tocome through; the rebellious work crew that cost a foreman his job; thesudden recession that shuttered factories for a few weeks. And now theyfaced this terrible turn of events: Negroes were moving onto the street,breaking into white man's territory. News of their arrival meant so manythings. A man felt his pride knotted and twisted. Parents feared for thesafety of their daughters, who had to walk the same streets as coloredmen. And everyone knew that when the color line was breeched, housingvalues would collapse, spinning downward until Garland Avenuewas swallowed into the ghetto and everything was lost.

* * *

Word that a colored family had bought the bungalow on the northwestcorner of Garland and Charlevoix had first spread up and down thestreet in the early days of summer. The place was kitty-corner to the elementaryschool and directly across Garland from the Morning StarMarket, the cramped neighborhood grocery where many of thewomen did their daily shopping. The rumors had caused a lot of consternation,much tough talk, and some serious threats. But most peoplewere still surprised when, the day after Labor Day, policemen tookup positions around the house.

The Negroes had arrived in the morning, half a dozen of them.Since they didn't have much furniture, they'd finished the move in notime at all. But the police had stayed all day and into the night. Theyreturned first thing the next morning. A couple of patrolmen wanderedlistlessly back and forth along the blistering sidewalk as school let outat 3:15. An even larger official presence was in position-eight officersstationed around the intersection-when the men came home fromthe factories a few hours later.

Garland wasn't a friendly street. Neighbors might nod as they wentto work, chat in line at the market. Kids might play together. But therewere a few too many transients-a young couple renting out a flat, a singleman boarding in a back bedroom-for folks to really feel connectedto one another. Even longtime residents generally kept to themselves.

On the evening of September 9, 1925, though, neighbors couldn'twait to get outside. Partly, it was the soaring temperatures that drewthem down to the street. But it was the pulsing energy, the surgingexcitement that really tugged at them. The Negroes were nowhere tobe seen; there were no lights burning in the bungalow, no sign ofmovement anywhere on the property. But everyone knew they were inthere. And everyone knew that the police were stationed out front becausethere might be trouble.

So people finished up their suppers and, one by one, drifted out toGarland. It was close to seven when Ray and Kathleen Dove broughttheir baby daughter onto the porch of their flat, almost directly acrossfrom the colored family's house. Ray had spent the day in the MurrayBody plant, up near the Ford factory, where he worked as a metal finisher.It was a sweaty, dangerous job, grinding down the imperfectionsin steel auto bodies, making them as smooth as customers expectedthem to be. As usual, Ray came home anxious for an evening of relaxation.Kathleen sat in the chair she brought outside and Ray leanedagainst the railing, watching the baby play at his feet. Their two boarders,George Strauser and Bill Arthur, soon joined them. Strauser kepthimself occupied by writing a letter. Arthur, only three days in theneighborhood, was content to sit with his landlords and pass the timewhile the sun slowly set.

As they chatted, the sidewalk in front of the Doves' house began tofill up with excited neighborhood children. Thirteen-year-old GeorgeSuppus dragged his little brother down the street as soon as they hadfinished their after-dinner chores. He met his best friend, Ulric Arthur,in front of the market. The three boys stood around for a while, watchingthe corner house, until a cop told them to move on. Then they wanderedover to the Doves' front lawn, where no one seemed to care howlong they loitered.

Most adults wouldn't admit to sharing the kids' curiosity, so thoseanxious to be outside fished for excuses. Leon Breiner, a foreman atthe Continental Motors plant, lived a dozen houses north of the Doves,in a frame cottage much more modest than the bungalow the Negroeshad bought. He had good reason to stay at home: his wife, Leona, sufferedfrom a heart condition and the heat left her drained and oftencross. But Breiner grew restless sitting alongside her in the rockersthey had on their small front porch, and he volunteered to pick up afew items from the Morning Star Market down at the corner. Puffingon his pipe, he headed down toward the police.

Otto Lemhagen arrived at the corner shortly after seven to spendsome time with his brother-in-law, Norton Schuknecht, a man ofstature, an inspector in the Detroit Police Department, commander ofthe McClellan Avenue Station.